If you are looking to share the real story behind Thanksgiving with your kids, look no further than Penny Colman's new middle grade nonfiction title, Thanksgiving: The True Story. The traditional Thanksgiving story that most of us learned in elementary school has the Pilgrims sitting down to a feast in 1621 with the Indians who helped them to survive their first year in New England, the men wearing black hats, and everyone eating turkey and popcorn, and this pretty much being the start of our national celebration of Thanksgiving every year. Turns out, as with many historical events, that the truth is a bit more complicated.
I learned from Penny Colman's book that while the 1621 feast did exist, it wasn't technically considered a feast of Thanksgiving. It didn't lead in any linear fashion to the Thanksgiving tradition that we celebrate today. Rather, the linking of the story of that feast to our modern Thanksgivings was something that didn't happen until more than 200 years later. And the record doesn't show any wearing of high hats with silver buckles or black clothes at that 1621 feast. Fascinating!
If you read Thanksgiving: The True Story, you'll learn the more complex origins of the holiday that we celebrate this week, including the inspiring story of the woman who lobbied tirelessly to get Thanksgiving declared a national holiday (the truly amazing Sarah Josepha Hale). You'll also find fun tidbits, like the date of the first Thanksgiving Day football game and the history of the first Thanksgiving Day parades. You'll learn when Thanksgiving first became a national holiday, and what that required.
One thing I especially like about this book is that way that the author injects her own opinions and experiences throughout the book, tying the historical details back to modern-day, real people. Here's an example:
"After all my research into the various claims, I still favored the 1621 event with the English colonists and Wampanoag as the first Thanksgiving, perhaps in part because of my heritage--my father was from New England. But more than that, because the 1621 event was more like the Thanksgiving that we celebrate today. In 1621, the colonists and the Wampanoag came together in a secular gathering. They had a huge feast and played games, including competitive sports.
But as I continued doing more research, I realized that, in fact, none of these claims led directly to the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the United States. That is not to say that they did not leave a mark on our historical memory. They did. However, the early claims are not the direct antecedents of the Thanksgiving that we celebrate today." (Page 23-24)
Thanksgiving: The True Story is upper middle grade / middle school nonfiction at its best. The book's layout is welcoming, with frequent illustrations, short chapter sections, indented quotations, and wide margins. There are more than 60 black and white illustrations, ranging from archival documents from hundreds of years ago to photographs taken recently. The end material includes a chronology of Thanksgiving-related dates, detailed notes and sources for each chapter, and an extensive index. There is an author's note to tell readers where the book came from. The first part of the book covers the origins of Thanksgiving, while the second part is about Thanksgiving traditions, and what the holiday means to people now. The book is solidly researched, including details from historical references to the results of a recent survey. It is well worth your time.
I'm going to close this review by quoting Penny Colman's conclusion to the book:
"All this is part of the true story of Thanksgiving--the origins, the themes, and the questions. It is a much more complicated story than is typically told. But it is a much richer story, a more nuanced an inclusive story, a fitting story for a country that values diversity and openness, a country where we are free to come together any time we please, including on the fourth Thursday of November--Thanksgiving Day." (Page 125)
I highly recommend that you take the time to make your own Thanksgiving more nuanced, by reading Thanksgiving: The True Story. You won't be disappointed. The publisher lists the age range as 10 to 16, but I think that the book will appeal to adults, too.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.